35 Who Made a Difference: Maya Angelou

By singing of her own hardships, she has given strength to others

Author Maya Angelou hosts the 2000 annual conference for the Children's Defense Fund in March 2007. Najlah Feanny/CORBIS SABA

Maya Angelou's signature book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, burst upon the American literary landscape in 1969, becoming an immediate bestseller. It has retained its position as a treasured work in the past 36 years, capturing the loyalty of successive generations of readers, remaining a constant recourse for those who early on were enraptured by its story of a girl growing up in rural Arkansas amid the tensions of America’s black-white divide. Her memoir is a narrative of the ability of the human spirit to surmount adversity.

The title of the book comes from the poem “Sympathy” by the late 19th-century poet known as the poet laureate of African-Americans, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem is a meditation on the struggles of a bird to escape its cage, an analogy frequently invoked to describe an oppressed people. It also speaks to the supposed contradiction of the bird singing in the midst of its struggle.

Angelou became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild a decade before Caged Bird was written, but her focus had been poetry and drama. The book grew less out of the literary ambitions of its author than out of her marvelous skills as a raconteur. So profoundly did these impress her friend James Baldwin that he urged her to write an account of her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas. At first she resisted, not wishing to interrupt her poetry or playwriting, but challenged by the hint that perhaps she lacked the skill to transpose her scintillating oral narration to print, she produced Caged Bird.

Angelou continued the narrative of her quest for fulfillment and completion in a succession of books that have established her as a major autobiographical voice of the time. Sixteen years elapsed between the fifth and the sixth and final volume of the series, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, which appeared in 2002. It takes the protagonist to the threshold of her literary career, ending with her picking up the pen to begin writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou explains that writing the most recent book took so long because of the painful journey it required her to relive: through the years of the civil rights struggle and the traumatic assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., with both of whom she had established ties. The book’s title takes us back to Dunbar’s poem, whose closing lines are:

It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings!

Angelou has been nurtured by poets and poetry since her earliest years. A moving evocation of this reality was presented in a “conversation” between her and her son, Guy Johnson, a poet and novelist, in July 2005 at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. Mother and son reminisced, quoted poems, and remembered specific occasions when poets and poems provided inspiration and solace.

An epochal moment in the creative life of Maya Angelou, who had become by the early 1990s one of the most recognizable Americans, was the invitation to write and deliver a poem at the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton as president of the United States. Angelou and Clinton share a rural Arkansas background; her childhood home, Stamps, is about 25 miles from Clinton’s hometown, Hope. During a crossing of their paths during the 1992 electoral campaign, Clinton greeted her as “homegirl.” Standing in a cold winter wind on January 20, 1993, before the national capitol, the “homegirl” read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning.” Angelou delivered a second “public” poem—“A Brave and Startling Truth”—at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in June 1995. Regarding the human race “on a small and lonely planet,” it concludes:

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Editor's Note: Smithsonian.com selected Maya Angelou as part of our 2005 series on "35 Who Made a Difference." Angelou died on May 28, 2014 at the age of 86 years old.

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